Russia: The Fight for Independent Media Continues

Despite the crackdown that followed the invasion of Ukraine, journalists carry on the battle for free expression.

Russia: The Fight for Independent Media Continues

Despite the crackdown that followed the invasion of Ukraine, journalists carry on the battle for free expression.

Streaming studio of the YouTube channel Kotrikadze-Dzyadko. Tikhon Dzyadko and Ekaterina Kotrikadze, respectively editor-in-chief and news director of Dozhd TV, relocated to Georgia after Russia's last independent TV channel closed its operations on March 4.
Streaming studio of the YouTube channel Kotrikadze-Dzyadko. Tikhon Dzyadko and Ekaterina Kotrikadze, respectively editor-in-chief and news director of Dozhd TV, relocated to Georgia after Russia's last independent TV channel closed its operations on March 4. © Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Kotrikadze
Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko interview Oleksiy Arestovych (centre), adviser to the presidential office of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. They host the talk show Kotrikadze-Dzyadko on YouTube.
Ekaterina Kotrikadze and Tikhon Dzyadko interview Oleksiy Arestovych (centre), adviser to the presidential office of Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky. They host the talk show Kotrikadze-Dzyadko on YouTube. © Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Kotrikadze
Monday, 4 April, 2022

On the evening of March 1, the newsroom studio of Dozhd (Rain) TV was in emergency mode. Tikhon Dzyadko, our editor-in-chief, was on air in Moscow, coordinating analysis with military experts and political scientists with the reporting of journalists on the ground in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv in Ukraine.

 It had been eight days since the Kremlin ordered tanks to roll into Ukraine. In the wake of the invasion, the demand for information was huge and as Russia’s only independent TV station, our viewership skyrocketed. About 25 million people watched our broadcast daily on YouTube alone.

We did our utmost to ensure comprehensive coverage. We interviewed government officials, aired the Russian ministry of defence’s briefings and reported from where the war was unfolding. We had lost sense of day and night and stopped counting the hours spent in the newsroom.

But because we showed the reality in Ukraine, we became a problem. Little did we know that our coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine was about to come to an end. Hours after that evening broadcast on March 1, the Russian authorities blocked our website and that of Echo of Moscow, the country’s last independent radio station.

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin started a senseless, criminal war against a neighboring country. He justified it using his favourite narratives about the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people, the supposed Nazis ruling Kyiv and, of course, NATO’s threats to Russia. 

These statements were so strained and absurd that even the massive onslaught of state propaganda would not have been enough to provide the Russian population’s unconditional support. 

To get that, he needed to destroy independent media, or rather what little was left of it in Russia. He needed to silence those not following the Kremlin’s orders, daring to broadcast Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s press conferences and the meetings of the UN Security Council, giving airtime to officials from western countries, trying to explain the consequences of the sanctions and, most importantly, the reasons why those sanctions were imposed.  

Dozhd TV did that and more. We gave voice to Ukrainians sheltering their children deep in the metro stations of Kyiv and Kharkiv or the basements of apartment blocks in Mariupol. We talked to Russian parents who desperately asked for their sons, sent against their will as soldiers to kill Ukrainians, to be spared. A few politicians and civil servants dared to appear in our programmes, but their contradictory positions crumbled at the first uncomfortable set of questions. 

When the invasion started, there were three large independent media outlets in Russia: Dozhd TV, Echo of Moscow radio and Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper led by Nobel Peace prize laureate Dmitry Muratov. 

On March 4, parliament passed a law introducing a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for disseminating “inaccurate information” about the army’s actions. This could mean anything not in line with the Kremlin’s official position, including calling the ongoing war a war, or reporting Kyiv's figures on Russia's losses, particularly of soldiers. 

The bill inevitably turned any journalist covering the invasion into a target. Kremlin officials could just decide whom to aim for, prosecute and send behind bars at will. 

Dozhd TV faced a choice between conforming to the Kremlin’s line or being closed down. We decided to temporarily shut our YouTube channel and social media accounts. On March 4 we all resigned during the live stream and left.

The telecast cut to black-and-white footage of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake – the same that all Soviet Union’s TV channels aired after the announcement that the USSR had ceased to exist.

Dozhd TV’s founder, Natalya Sindeeva, said in a statement that “we need to regain energy and strength to exhale and understand how to work further. We really hope that we will return to the air and continue to work”.

The newsroom dissolved and we scattered. I returned home to my native Georgia. 

We were not the only ones. Journalists are leaving Russia in droves as they realise that anything that does not conform to the Kremlin’s line can lead them straight to jail. 

“I miss my life in Moscow terribly, my friends, my home and the job that I was deprived of. It is humiliating, I am not a criminal,” our editor-in-chief Dzyadko told me.

Novaya Gazeta continued to operate until March 28, when it announced that it would stop publishing both online and on paper following two warnings from Roskomnadzor, the state agency supervising communication, IT and media.

It is disheartening. Facebook and Instagram, which were hugely popular in Russia, are blocked as Meta, their parent company, has been declared an extremist organisation. Russian reporters are switching en masse to Telegram and YouTube where they create their own channels.

Tikhon and I are among them. From a studio in Tbilisi, we host the Kotrikadze – Dzyadko talk show on You Tube. The platform is also the new cyber home of colleagues like Alexandr Plushev, a journalist who used to produce a highly-rated show on the now-shuttered Ekho of Moscow, and Anna Mongait, the face of Dzhod’s political news who used to host Women on Top, a popular feminist TV show.

Some consider this pivot ineffective as even the most talented journalists cannot take over the functions of an entire editorial office. While this is true, we are definitely able to offer an alternative source of information, a window to the free world. But this won’t last long. It is unlikely that YouTube in Russia has even the slightest chance of surviving.  

The invasion of Ukraine did not come out of nowhere. The war with Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 sent strong enough signals about Putin’s imperialism, but world leaders continued to do business with him. Many thought that a reasonable dialogue was possible, but critical energy resources also drove their decisions. Putin used those revenues not only for the economy, but also to enrich himself and his inner circle of ultra-wealthy elite figures.

The Kremlin created a facade of democracy allowing a handful of independent media outlets to operate and social media to function.But as of end of March 2022, only state television channels remain in Russia. They continue to malign Ukraine, America and NATO. They lie about the war, accusing Ukraine of shelling its own cities. 

In one of the recent prime time broadcasts on Kremlin’s channel Russia 24, some propagandists stated that No War echoes the slogan used on Nazi leaflets.

Now Putin has burned all his bridges. He does not need McDonald's, or Coca-Cola, or yachts in the Mediterranean. What matters is the restoration of the empire and his name in history. His obsession with Ukraine will grow into one with world domination, and along the way, he is ready to pulverize anyone who dares to resist. 

The Ukrainian army is not the only resistance he faces. He is also hindered by the spread of the truth. This why he decided that there was no place for independent journalists in Russia.

Ekaterina Kotrikadze is Dozhd TV’s news director and anchor. Together with Tikhon Dzyadko, she hosts the talk show Kotrikadze Dzyadko on YouTube.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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